Perhaps it’s hypocritical for me to say as a product designer, but [i’d like to start a movement] to value life experiences over material goods. We aim to design quality products that last — that are useful, beautiful, and meaningful for the long-haul. Stop collecting the next new thing and spend more time collecting life experiences. Go travel and see the world. Challenge your prejudices and narrow-mindedness. It’s never too late to learn and live better.
Asian-born industrial designer Wai-Loong Lim is co-founder of Y Studios, a renowned San Francisco–based product design and research company with expertise in human/robot interaction and user experience for AI, IoT, VR, AR, and the most cutting-edge tech of tomorrow. With more than 20 years of success, Wai and his team offer innovations in graphic, interface and product design — with extensive experience working with China-based businesses. Lim’s work has earned him numerous international design awards, like Good Design, IDEA, iF and Red Dot. His designs have been exhibited at numerous museums, including his Sonos SUB wireless speaker housed in Henry Ford Museum’s permanent collection in Dearborn, Michigan.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in Penang, a small island on Malaysian peninsula’s west coast. I always loved creativity and making things, but felt a bit like a misfit growing up in a culture that values “proper” professions like law and medicine over the arts.
My love for album cover art and magazines led me to graphic design at Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts. But after discovering industrial design, I switched study paths to pursue my passion. After 2.5 years, I dropped out of LASALLE to get real world experience working at an industrial design firm.
I then migrated to Canada, enrolling in Carleton University’s industrial design program. Eager to gain more experience, I dropped out (again!) to intern at Northern Telecom. I graduated in 1996 and immediately moved to Palo Alto, California — interning and then leading industrial design for product development company GVO. When the firm closed in 2001 following the dot-com implosion, that was when I, and my wife Lisa Yong, started industrial design and research firm, Y Studios.
I slowly grew the company into a team of designers, now operating out of a beautiful warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District. We create products for the most cutting-edge technologies, working with startups, SMEs and public corporations on both sides of the Pacific. China based-businesses are an important client base, and we continue to grow there.
Working and living in different countries has vastly influenced how I design and my company’s unique focus on Culture-Driven Design: creating products that have global appeal and contextual cultural relevance.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
For the past four years, we’ve been instrumental in helping our Chinese client create the VAVA brand, growing their tech products in audio, automotive and IoT into a seamless product suite with a shared visual brand aesthetic. Our latest Home Cam design just landed VAVA over $777k in Kickstarter funding. I’d like to think our industrial design for this wireless smart home camera — a simple sphere with unique details — helped make it stand out. The campaign performed even better than last year’s $420k Kickstarter funding for Dash Cam — which we designed as well.
We’re also continuing our collaboration with Beijing-based startup Little Fish, most recently designing the XiaoDuZaiJia Smart Video Speaker for the Chinese market. Powered by China search giant Baidu, the AI speaker features video calls, face ID, music streaming, voice search and smart home control. The product was launched with resounding success in a keynote March 2018 event by Robin Li, the founder of Baidu. We’re looking forward to expanding the product offering — stay tuned!
Likewise, we’re excited that our design for Ground Control Cyclops, a tech-advanced machine for batch-brewing specialty coffee, won Best New Product for Commercial Equipment at the Specialty Coffee Expo. It’s a huge win, putting our startup client Voga Coffee on the map. The country’s most well-respected roasters like Devoción (NYC) and Sump Coffee (Nashville) have chosen this cutting-edge brewer for their cafés. And just a short walk from our studio, at our favorite local Dandelion Chocolate café, it’s super cool seeing our design brew cups and cups of kickass coffee.
And as a Chai fiend one of my favorite creations, the Chime Automatic Chai Maker, will be released for Christmas. Until now, there’s never been a way to brew the perfect cup of Chai — besides the time-consuming stovetop. So the Chime will be a game-changer — and yes, there’s a nerdy smartphone app to fine-tune the size, temperature, strength, etc. No one has ever created this type of smart home product before. I’m incredibly excited — I hope that the world, especially India, is ready for it!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I will always be grateful to my first boss, Pedro Lobo, for first suggesting the crazy idea of dropping out college, working full-time for his firm, then using my professional portfolio to further my design studies. It was crazy counterintuitive — and yet, I did exactly that. The decision ultimately set my career in motion and taught me that life is never linear; there will be many times when you have to zig when everyone zags. I continue to follow that course today.
I’m also so thankful for my wife of 20-years Lisa Yong, my partner in life and in business. We started Y Studios from the ashes of the dot-com implosion and have grown the company, completely self-funded. There’ve been many dark days when we’ve asked each other, “We’re gonna be OK, right?”
One of the most challenging moments was in 2013 when the building we were renting/working from was sold — doubling our rent and making it impossible to stay. Rather than seeking another rental, we made the crazy-scary decision to buy a property in the popular Mission district. But timing is everything! We’re now located in San Francisco’s hipster central — within walking distance from world-class restaurants, coffee shops and only 15-minutes drive from SFO airport.
What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?
China is insanely fascinating. I travel there about three to four times a year, working with clients and factories — and I’m always blown away by it’s fast-paced growth. I’ve witnessed the dockless bike-sharing startup explosion like Mobike; and even more astounding, how China has transformed into a cashless society within the past two years.
The obvious giant market is the new generation of consumers in their 20s and their tech obsession. Much like the Millennials in the US, they are true digital natives of the smartphone. According to the May 2018 Counterpoint Research report, China has become the world’s largest mobile e-commerce market in 2017. The nation’s upcoming Single’s Day on November 11 (11/11), which is the world’s largest online sales event, is predicted to be significantly higher than last year’s $25 billion USD, Alibaba reported. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hits $50 billion this year.
What challenges does that new market face? How would you address it?
The Chinese market is no longer enthralled by foreign brands, and instead, are willing to give domestic brands a chance. Hello, Xiaomi, Oppo, Hauwei, etc. However, they’re quite picky and discerning when it comes to making purchasing decisions. Consumers in China may be locked out of Facebook and Google, yet they’re hyper-aware of what’s happening globally. Also, China’s KOLs “Key Opinion Leaders” (essentially social media influencers like celebrities, industry leaders and bloggers) have a HUGE influence on the local consumers’ purchasing decisions.
We also shouldn’t assume that what’s viable in America — works in China. For example, smart doorbells are a big segment of the U.S.’s IoT market. However, they don’t sell well in China because the majority live in apartments — not in single-family homes. We have to rethink how to address these markets to contextually fit their unique lifestyle needs.
Can you share the top challenges of doing business in China and how you overcame them?
The three main challenges for me are: language, time, and budget.
Even though I grew up in Malaysia in a mainly Chinese community, I still have to be mindful of Chinese social etiquettes and “switch gears” whenever I’m in China — especially since adopting many bad habits in my 25 years in North America. But it’s the Chinese language that remains the most challenging for me. I’m not particularly fluent since my parents only spoke English and the Fujian dialect at home. So a couple of months ago, I decided to re-learn Chinese. I take one-to-one lessons via Skype with a teacher in Xi’an twice a week. I’m determined to push forward to communicate better with China clients and vendors.
Time is an ongoing battle. In China, everyone is in a hurry. They’re more focused on tactical solutions rather than long-term strategic thinking. That goes for design as well, with the unrealistic expectation that we can create amazing designs and go into production within a few weeks. What’s worse is that some companies are just happy with “good-enough” making it extremely hard to convince otherwise. In which case, they’re not a good fit for us.
Nevertheless, there are Chinese companies that do understand design and product quality, take time. They can no longer depend on thin margins, hoping to make a profit selling in large volumes — because everybody else is doing that. Instead, China is learning to put more effort into innovative solutions to differentiate. And guess what? Innovation takes time. There is no shortcut. This is where we come in, applying our global experience to design solutions appropriate to target markets. Good examples are Chinese clients like VAVA, where we’re designing products for the U.S.; and Little Fish, where we’re designing products for the mainland market.
As for budget, we’ve been fortunate to secure Chinese clients that understand the value of design and therefore, don’t have much resistance to typical US consultancy fees. However, getting to that understanding takes time and patience to explain the process and manage expectations. That said, I love a good challenge (…or punishment!) so I continue pursuing Chinese clients. Plus, I’ve already invested in Chinese language lessons — in for a penny, in for a yuan.
We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?
We’ve already seen some of our Chinese clients, whose primary market is the U.S., affected by the trade wars. One client had to raise prices across the board, affecting all competitors within the category — which will ultimately hurt consumers. Yet another client is scrambling to move production to Vietnam, which is not affected by the tariffs, yet.
And let’s be real: it’s not likely that manufacturing can be brought back to the U.S. completely. We simply don’t have the infrastructure to build certain products at the low prices that consumers have come to expect.
How will it affect our business? I’m sure there’ll be budget pressure for research and design projects but it remains to be seen how it will impact us in the long term. In the meantime, we have Chinese clients developing for their local markets so that will remain mostly unaffected by the tariffs.
We’ve always had the foresight not to specialize too much in any industry or region. Instead we nurture a wide array of projects, from equipment to consumer electronics to medical, across both sides of the Pacific, so as to spread the risk.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my all-time favorites is, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” by Mark Twain. I hold this quote dear to my heart since I’ve traveled through so many countries before settling in San Francisco. Each time I’ve moved, I’ve had to adapt and assimilate to new environments. It’s much like a designer receiving a brief to develop a new product. In order to grow, succeed, innovate and challenge preconceived assumptions — we have to remain curious and receptive to new ideas. And what better tool than travel? As a designer, travel is essential to understanding different cultures and how people will ultimately use the products you create.
I’m fortunate to have traveled extensively in my career. What’s even more fun is spotting my designs around the world — like the Keen Venice sandals I designed in 2007 that are still in production today…and on the feet of fellow travelers from Vietnam to Zimbabwe.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Perhaps it’s hypocritical for me to say as a product designer, but it would be to value life experiences over material goods. At Y Studios, we aim to design quality products that last — that are useful, beautiful, and meaningful for the long-haul. Stop collecting the next new thing and spend more time collecting life experiences. Go travel and see the world. Challenge your prejudices and narrow-mindedness. It’s never too late to learn and live better.